Monday, 1 July 2013

Week 2: Food Bank


In the run up to our street's Big Lunch, my partner D and I decided to organise a collection for the local Food Bank.

It seemed obvious that the two should go hand-in-hand. There we were, preparing food to share with the rest of the street. Why not bring along an extra tin or two, to donate to those who weren't lucky enough to sit drinking beer and eating sandwiches with their neighbours?

We made copies of the Food Bank shopping list, and put it through every door of the 40-odd houses on our street. The response was phenomenal. By the end of the Big Lunch, our three plastic crates were so over-stuffed with pasta, chopped tomatoes, tea bags, and other household staples that one of the larger boxes broke when D tried to pick it up. And it took four men to carry all the food into the Bank from our car.

Before the Lunch began, we already had two whole shopping bags' worth of food, brought to our house by people who had no intention of joining in with the party. One said they couldn't make it because of other commitments. But I wondered why the others had opted not to join in.

Our collection allowed people to give food, without having to sit down and eat a meal with neighbours. Not everyone is able, or wants, to socialise in this way, and it is perhaps unfair to restrict food-sharing to those who have time at the weekend, or who are more gregarious in nature. Dropping off some provisions, without having to take part in the chit-chat, gets round this problem.

The flip side is that, while people may feel good about donating food to those who need it, they miss out on the human interaction, and the building up of friendships, that accompanies events like the Big Lunch

And, unsurprisingly, the Food Bank was an anonymous place. I'd heard about people standing in line outside, but when I turned up, an hour after it opened, I saw nobody. Inside, the hall was oddly hushed. Quiet conversations were being held in two-sided booths, between volunteers and aid recipients.

The workers at this particular Food Bank told me they had fed over 1,000 individuals since it opened last November. In 2011-12, the number of people who received at least three days' emergency food was around 130,000. But Walking the Breadline, the report published in May by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, includes figures from the Trussell Trust (the biggest network of foodbanks in the UK) showing that over 500,000 are now thought to be reliant on food aid. The leap in figures is astonishing.

The people I spoke to at the Big Lunch all said they were pleased a collection had been organised. Food Banks are clearly doing a much-needed job. But also - pretty much unanimously - our neighbours felt it was a terrible indictment on today's society that such places have to exist at all.

I felt deeply uncomfortable when I was in the Food Bank. I watched my beaming, chubby children as they helped unpack the masses of food we'd brought in. To them, it was just a game. As far as this pair of under four-year-olds were concerned, visiting the Food Bank was just an extension of the exciting street party they'd enjoyed the weekend before.

But the contrast couldn't have been more marked.

At the Big Lunch, we were sharing food, pretty much as equals. Admittedly, some people were able to bring salad made with Waitrose plum tomatoes, dressed with Tesco Finest virgin olive oil; while others came to the table with a couple of packs of sausages from Iceland. But those subtle differences didn't matter. We all, within reason, had food to spare.

And we all got to know each other better. But at the Food Bank, I had no idea who the recipients of the food would be. All I knew was that they would be desperate, and in need of a few days' help. Michele Hanson wrote recently in the Guardian, (facetiously, of course), that the Food Bank system is "the more fortunate ... helping the paupers". And, even though the workers at the Food Bank were kind, tactful and welcoming; despite the sad fact that, at the moment places like this have to exist, as the alternative doesn't bear thinking about; I keenly felt the uneven power dynamic when I turned up at the Food Bank, laden with food.

The problem is, the people visiting the Food Bank aren't 'paupers', with the otherness that word implies. They could be people I smile and nod at regularly, on my travels round the local streets. They could even be people who live on our street. And, rather than choosing to accept a kindness, these people have been forced, out of desperation, to rely on the mercy of people like me.

Part of what I've been looking forward to with Our Time of Gifts, is getting to know a bit more about the people I encounter. But, when I walked in to the aid centre, I didn't want to find out who was benefiting from all the tins and packets we'd collected. What could I possibly say if I ran into someone, coming out of the Bank with a few cheap tins to help keep their family alive? 'How do you feel about receiving this food?' 'What has happened in your life to make you turn to food aid?' The first question is crass and stupid; the second deeply intrusive.

Better to read a personal account of what it's like to live in food poverty, like that of A Girl Called Jack.

I am glad we organised the collection. Our weekly shopping trip now includes a couple of purchases for the Food Bank, and when we deliver it at the end of each month, we'll see whether anyone else from the street wants to add anything.

But I feel very sad about having to do this.

In a decent, wealthy country like ours, there must be a better way of making sure people have enough to eat.

Next week, I'll be describing my experience of Streetbank, the online system for neighbourhood sharing.


  1. I felt a bit deflated after reading your post. When you start a project like this you assume it will always leave you feeling positive. But the reality of life is more complex. Thanks for sharing though, both with the Foodbank & with us.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jo. When I started Our Time of Gifts, I wanted to feature ALL aspects of giving. It's a sad fact that some people receive gifts (or 'aid', in this case) because they're in a desperate situation. I think it's inevitable that's going to be deflating. But I'm very glad we organised the showed just how generous people can be, if they're asked.

  2. I run a foodbank and feel the same way!

    1. That's really interesting - thanks ever so much for commenting. I think you do an amazing job, for the record.

  3. I think giving items without being able to give friendship is always going to be very awkward, and when it comes down to it, the more anonymous the better. Very interesting to look at all those different aspects of giving. Hm. Having lots of thoughts. Be prepared for a DM.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and please do keep the thoughts coming! Over the next two or three weeks, I'm going to be working out how best to open Our Time of Gifts out to other people's please do watch this space (you and anyone else who's reading this).

  4. Very interesting post, Nell and a great blog project. Neighbours helping neighbours is the way communities work best, IMHO. Perhaps part of that awkwardness around giving and receiving is partly down to it being quite unusual in many places now. And, of course, it is open to abuse. I know a person on a very comfortable salary with a portfolio of rental properties that is SO tight, they will still plead poverty at the food bank to get something for free. While someone in real need is too proud to's a challenge, eh? *holds hands wide and shrugs*

    1. I suppose it can be open to abuse, but I think that kind off thing is very, very rare. A Girl Called Jack wrote a fantastic guest post for Mumsnet recently, and she touched on this issue:

  5. Well done you! We are currently trying to donate a large supply of cereal to a food bank and having trouble finding an out of work hours place to drop the food off. I know the banks are staffed by volunteers largely, so not complaining, but it does make it difficult to deliver our donation!
    That small quibble aside, I wish we didnt need them, but we do, and they provide an invaluable service!

  6. This is so interesting Nell. I guess some people who might make donations anonymously might not want to spend time lingering on thinking too much about it. Maybe it's fear related in a sort of 'it could be next' sort of a way? I've been wanting to get involved with our local food bank recently, and this has spurred me on. I saw in the local paper that the volunteer who runs our local food bank is having to keep stock at his house - it showed a picture of his dining room crammed with boxes of food, as there is no space for him to store anywhere else. On the one hand good that there are so many donations, on the other, how long is that sustainable? xx

  7. Just wrote a comment and then lost it grrr! I think Foodbank does a fantastic work and I contribute regularly to the one at our church. Sad that in modern day Britain, so many people are on the breadline but if it's here, we should all do our bit to help. Great idea for a blog Nell! X